health & wellness

Chitra Umaashanker On Birth Of ‘Parihaar’, An App That Connects People With Arthritis

Karthika S Nair | Mar 10 2021
Image credits: Chitra Ummashanker

Rheumatoid arthritis (RA) is an autoimmune disease that causes joint pain and damage, which affect both sides of the body. It is identified by the symptoms of inflammation and pain in the joints; joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and loss of joint function and deformities. More women suffer from RA. In fact 75% of RA patients are women.

Chitra Umaashanker experienced the initial symptoms of RA when she was in her late 20s. After she was diagnosed with the disease, her life changed, and had to face a lot of challenges. She had to take treatment as well as counseling to help cope with physical pain and the emotional burden that came with it. 

While undergoing this journey, Chitra had a life-calling, which is that she wants to help other people who suffer from this autoimmune disease. 

With her Doctor and a team, she created a mobile phone application to connect with other people to help them by providing needed information and resources.

Talking to the Beyond Pink Team, Chitra shared the birth of 'Parihaar’, a mobile application to help those who suffer from Rheumatoid arthritis.

Tell us about the mobile phone app. When was it launched?

In February 2019, we launched an app named 'Parihaar.' We also have a web portal 'www.parihaar.in.' As a patient of Rheumatoid arthritis, I had an idea about what kind of physical and emotional support one needs to overcome the tough situation and to live a peaceful life. 

For this venture, I joined hands with Dr. Padmanabha Shenoy, who is a Rheumatologist, working in his clinic Shenoycare.

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Dr Padmanabha Shenoy

His clinic is a major partner in this venture. We provide general information and tips to our users. Currently, our app is undergoing major developments and we are in the pilot phase. 

You mentioned that RA changed your life. How big of an impact did it have in your life and how much struggle have you seen for yourself? 

I am a woman who comes from an IT background. I did my education at TKM College of Engineering, Kollam. I worked as a defence officer and was part of the second batch of women taken in the Air Force. 

When I was in my late 20s, which is around 27 years of age, I started experiencing classic symptoms of RA. I had joint pain, swelling, stiffness, and sometimes it hurt just to lift a cup of tea. 

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Chitra Ummashanker

My defence contract ended a year after I was diagnosed. The problem is that sometimes, this problem goes undiagnosed. I was lucky to be amongst people who had an idea about what was going on and about arthritis. 

While I had this problem, my life saw many milestones. I got married. I had to change my jobs. I did face several challenges, notably the physical challenges. 

And this experience gave birth to Parihaar? 

Yes. Like the name itself, the idea is to suggest solutions for the problem, in this case, RA. For me, living with arthritis is a continuing journey. There are lots of things I have to pay attention to. Similarly, I had to ensure that my life was a smooth sail instead of survival. 

My family, peers, friends and Dr. Shenoy's care helped me sail through with my work and responsibilities. That is what motivated me to create Parihaar. People don’t have to compromise their quality of life or suffer more. 

How do you think RA affects women differently when compared to men? 

As I mentioned before, due to joint pain and inflammation, the quality of life tends to be affected. While the pain is the same for women and men, women experience it differently due to social stigma and perception. Women are expected to be multi-tasking and providing emotional labour at all times. When she talks about the pain, it is often perceived as her "laziness" or "excuses." 

Men, on the other hand, tend to be pampered by their wives or parents. Perhaps it is because he is not expected to do any domestic work or responsibilities. 

Because of this lack of support, women tend to suffer in silence. They don't talk much about it. But, when it is diagnosed too late, RA ends up becoming a major physical disability as it affects locomotive functions. I have had a lot of conversations with others about this gender inequality. 

As a woman, how did you handle this situation?

I focussed on my health and prioritised on getting better. There were some talks of criticisms but I, personally, didn't pay much attention to them. The point is also to get people to talk about what they are going through because they don't have to suffer. They can adapt to the changes as a result of RA better. 

I am still only recovering from this disease. 

Tell us a bit more about the app and how far it has come

With our app 'Parihaar', Shenoy Care working as a beta partner, we have worked on 70% of what we intended to do.

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Image: Parihaar app

There are over one thousand downloads since we launched. Most of our users are women between 25 and 60 years of age, who require constant support for a better life. We provide them with the needed information, tips, and other support. 

We are working on more investments, people in leadership and developments to further enhance the features and perfect the workflow. We have done over 750 in-app consultations so far. Our aim is to create a team of support and localise our project by giving continuous support to patients with chronic arthritis conditions.

On the occasion of this year's women's day and women's history month, what is your message to girls and women?

Prioritise your health.

That is an important message I like to convey. Don't compromise yourself for the sake of other people's opinions or social conditioning. Socially constructed roles tend to serve as a barrier for women to live their lives and chase their dreams. When it comes to life as a journey, it is the same for all but challenges come in different ways. 

Women should face these challenges, seek help when needed and break barriers that come their way. One thing I have learned is that an ecosystem, that sees women helping other women, works excellently. Because they have an idea about their challenges and understand each other better. 

We need more such ecosystems.